Should protection cities lose their federal funding

Anti-Trumpism: American Cities as Centers of New Power

A power shift is underway: the hierarchically structured system of the USA is shifting in the face of a new density of problems, the solution of which increasingly requires multidimensional answers. These solutions are increasingly being found at the urban level, while federal power in the United States is structurally weakening and the national government is either too late or too poorly targeted to meet the needs of its citizens. Under the Trump administration, this sometimes led to direct confrontation: the White House versus the country's town halls. Citizens have long been demanding more direct control over their living spaces, and direct influence on climate policy, pandemic prevention and integration measures - here, American cities are increasingly networking among themselves and internationally - sometimes even bypassing the national level of government, as can be observed in many places in the Corona crisis was. In a new political era in the US, cities could play a bigger, creative role in implementing a progressive agenda that can help restore confidence in American democracy and transatlantic relations, despite the US federal system.

A power shift is underway: As federal power weakens structurally in the United States and the national government is seen to deliver either too late, or too little on citizen needs, particularly in times of deep crisis, cities are taking on a more prominent role in upholding faith in democracy as populism ravages national politics; giving citizens more direct control over their lived environment and building functional international connections around climate change, pandemic management and migrant integration. With a change in administration, expect U.S. cities to play a larger role in shaping a progressive policy agenda that can serve to rebuild trust in democracy and the transatlantic relationship - despite American federalism’s "anti-urban" design.

The first attack on America's cities from the White House began just five days after Donald Trump took office. On January 25, 2017, the first lawsuit against San Francisco as a so-called "sanctuary city", as a protective city against the interference of state immigration authorities in the arrest and expulsion of illegally resident migrants, was before. It was the beginning of a deep conflict that would drag on for the next four years: federal government versus cities. The sad climax of this conflict was seen on every television screen in the world on January 6, 2021: While Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser pleaded with the White House for help, the President banned the deployment of the National Guard for hours, while an attack near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the beating heart of American democracy, the Capitol, which killed five people.[1]

The conflict between the Trump administration and the predominantly democratic-led cities is based on different socio-cultural visions of America. Donald Trump's populism feeds on the logic of a culture war in which the expansion of minority rights is understood as a departure from the “traditional values” of white majority rights. The melting pot of the heterogeneous American city was therefore a thorn in his side from the start.

Trump's supporters come mainly from the suburbs and from rural regions or regions of the country that have been forgotten by globalization, in which the creation of information oases was even better possible than in cities in which different people have different information consumption and exchange due to the urban density alone, even if of course geography does not protect against disinformation.[2] The president's divisive rhetoric only works where social trust is weakening and people trust neither one another nor the system. The president played with these uncertainties for four years. Actively exploiting the weaknesses of American democracy was part of his strategy. In recent years, the republican party has become “a collection of rural and suburban bacon interests, while the democrats have become a broad, diverse“ urban community of interests ”(Rodden 2019: 9 ff.).

In Trump’s worldview, the attack on America’s cities came from a position of political strength, because the American constitution, the electoral system and Congress itself are institutionally structured in such a way that cities always have to lose. So z. For example, by 2040 half of Americans (despite an urbanization rate of 82%) will be represented by just 16 senators, while rural America, with 84 senators, can make key decisions for the whole country. And yet a gradual power transformation is taking place in the USA, which the next president can use for himself. America's cities are so deeply networked with each other and now also internationally that they can sustainably influence the political agenda even without formal power. That is what made it so dangerous for Donald Trump.

Source: CLUVER Image by Wallula from Pixabay times-square-2835995

The city as a rescue from the democracy crisis

The United States is in the midst of a “moral upheaval” prophesied forty years ago by political scientist Samuel Huntington (Huntington 1981). Even before the corona pandemic, the country "choked on" social distrust (Brooks 2020): The majority of Americans (71%) do not trust each other; the generation born after September 11, 2001 is more insecure than anyone before - in times of terrorism, climate change, pandemics, financial crises and constant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these young people trust almost no one anymore: only 19% of those surveyed by Pew Research in 2018 believed that most people could be trusted (Pew Research 2019). You are a "disappointed generation," diagnosed Brooks.

And yet: if you looked at America's streets in the summer, you could also come to a different conclusion. In the midst of a pandemic, a primarily young generation defied a federal government and the systemic racism in the country. In November 2020, young people in America's cities in particular, with their historically high voter turnout, demonstrated how politically motivated they are - including population groups with the otherwise lowest interpersonal trust values: African-Americans and Latinos.

In September 2020, 52% of Americans said they trusted the government with little confidence in dealing with international crises - the pandemic and climate change topped the list. 59% said that domestic political problems could not be expected of the Trump administration and that general confidence in Washington was only 20%. Nevertheless, 71% of those questioned were still convinced that local government officials, especially mayors, could be believed. Even more: According to a Pew survey from 2019, a full 86% believe that it would be possible to “rebuild interpersonal trust in the country” if cities and municipalities could work together to rebuild basic mutual trust and actively counteract the division of the country (Pew 2019).

Rural regions are and will remain privileged by the constitution and the representative electoral system. However, American cities have managed to consistently expand their political-thematic reach and their perceived political influence both nationally and internationally. In view of the far-reaching technical and socio-economic structural change, the level of credibility and thus also of power is shifting to the cities (Katz / Nowak 2018: 1–5 ff.). They become the new switching points for social innovation processes. Cities, according to former President Barack Obama in mid-November 2020, are "the level from which we must rebuild social trust in order for our democracy to survive."[3] This will also be necessary internationally, because 37% of Germans also derive their image of America from domestic political events - and ask themselves: How defensible is American democracy?[4]

The power of cities: networked agenda setting and influence

In an increasingly globalized and digitized world, power has become more diffuse. Central switching points give way to collective problem solving because problems can no longer be neatly separated according to political dimension. Climate change z. B. can only be combated efficiently if industry, research, politics, communities and individuals work together. Power is increasingly being equated with the capacity to solve problems efficiently and comprehensibly and to form new coalitions in order to control these processes successfully (Katz / Nowak: 5–9 ff). Where appropriate solutions cannot be found at national level, cities and their administrations position themselves as prominent “solution bundles”: They see themselves as nodes of high-performance, citizen-oriented politics that also provide solutions for the national level.

Pragmatism is the guiding principle here. Particularly in the American system, in which, unlike in the German context, cities benefit less from tax redistribution, innovation capacity is in demand. Partly due to an acute lack of resources, American cities have increasingly joined forces in the last 15 years to form interest-focused networks and strategically expanded their relationships internationally. In this way and thanks to alternative financing options, they were able to withstand the pressure from Washington and also defy the corona pandemic, protect migrants and in some cases even initiate a “green” conversion of their infrastructure. This made a virtue out of necessity.

The networks mentioned not only enable the regular exchange of quantitative and qualitative data and experience reports. They also allow the expansion of collective political power, which cities in the hierarchical structure of American federalism actually do not have.

Source: CLUVER Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash

Five examples demonstrate how this “new localism” can strengthen the defensibility of democracy:

New financing models - from participatory budgeting to the international financial market

Since the 1990s, American cities have consistently developed a model that originally came from South America: participatory budgeting. Organized via various platforms, hundreds of American cities are now exchanging ideas on the sustainable and fair control of this direct democratic principle and thus ensuring greater social and ethnic justice in the city (Russon Gilman 2015: 5). Expanded to the international context, a group of cities - including 4 American cities - are striving for greater financial and economic independence from their nation-states.

The U-20 network has positioned itself as a “meta-platform” - an amalgamation of the C40 and the United Cities and Local Governments city networks (UCLG). Affiliated with the G-20, the U-20 members want to position themselves on the international financial market, but also have an impact on the governments of the G-20 and think about economic growth both globally and locally. A global resistance fund (Global Urban Resilience Fund), founded by cities for cities and financed by the World Bank Group (with the consent of the respective state government), is intended to ensure that e.g. B. a pandemic or an environmental event of a city - and especially the poorest of a city - does not rob the economic basis.[5]

Pandemic Fight

When the Trump administration tied coronavirus aid to the "sanctuary city" question and threatened, for example, not to deliver any life-sustaining medical equipment to the affected cities, America's cities networked both nationally and internationally. Using digital platforms, they set up models for public procurement at short notice in order to buy and distribute ventilators and protective clothing as quickly as possible.[6] Via WhatsApp, for example, the Los Angeles city administration coordinated the purchase of protective clothing from China and donations from local companies internationally with other cities and private providers. The Harvard Bloomberg City Leadership Initiative brought together hundreds of mayors every day to enable cities to coordinate their crisis communications and hospital occupancy and learn from one another.

Sanctuary Cities - cities as safe havens

Resistance from American cities to extradite migrants who are illegally in the country to the national immigration service sparked the first conflict between the Trump administration and the affected cities.[7] Despite repeated threats to cut funding for cities, the network of Sanctuary Cities held up and even expanded their coalitions. With Microsoft and AirBnB, several large corporations support the concerns of urban migrants with different residence permits (Villazor / Gulasekaram 2019).

Civil disobedience

The Black Lives Matter movement, organized as a network, has not only received political protection from organized mayors - especially the mayors of Chicago, Portland and Washington, D.C. stood behind the democratic right to freedom of expression and against the interference of national security authorities in their city. Mayors went even further: In many American cities, the issue of police violence against minorities was followed up directly. At the beginning of June, under the U.S. Conference of Mayors the first network for coordinated civil justice and police reform.[8]

Climate change

When Donald Trump canceled the Paris climate agreement, cities saved it. Since 2017, over 300 cities have committed themselves to the Paris climate goals. As part of "America’s Pledge", they exchange strategies with one another on how the climate goals can be achieved through new construction measures, infrastructure, local industrial policy and research and development. Twelve American cities form the heart of the largest international climate change city network C40, which is committed to reducing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (a total of over 90 cities are networked here, which identify scalable projects, work with data and lobby on a large scale ).[9]

The network has been an integral part of the official UN negotiations since 2015 - a C40 delegation has presented and represented the successes of the cities at every COP since the Paris Agreement was signed. It is to be seen as a partial success of this urban engagement that the role of American cities in the fight against global climate change was mentioned in President Biden’s party program.

Cities can fill the political vacuum - for a price

If the new American President Joe Biden is to successfully implement his agenda of national “reconstruction”, he will have to work closely with America's mayors. Because wherever the White House has abandoned its multilateral responsibility in the last four years, it has often been the cities that have filled the political vacuum. They have expanded their international partnerships and, in the process, also dealt with solving transnational problems. These connections should also be part of a new, transatlantic dialogue - the thread of the conversation has never been torn here.

European and American cities in particular are more closely networked than ever before. The cities are well aware of their power. B. confidently asked eight mayors in the Washington Post that the president should draft a Marshall Plan for Central America: a $ 60 billion cash injection (over ten years) to enable the economic and socio-economic transformation and make it sustainable .[10] Biden took a step in this direction at the end of November when he met over 50 of the leading members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors met: “I want you to know that we are here for you and we are going to listen to you,” said Biden. If the new US administration wants to breathe new credibility into American democracy, the president is in the right place.

He's already got it serious: two mayors are sitting in his cabinet after their Senate hearings - the labor minister is provided by the city of Boston, in which long-standing trade unionist and chairman of the international "Climate Mayors" network of cities, Marty Walsh, and the ministry of transport take over the former mayor of the small town of South Bend, Indiana and former Biden contestant in the primary campaign, Pete Buttigieg.In view of the challenges facing an America that first has to put the social cement back together in order to be able to combat the economic and health-political after-effects of the corona pandemic at the same time and quickly, President Biden will appreciate the credibility, pragmatism and drive of these two men need.


Brooks, David 2020: America is Having a Moral Convulsion. In: The Atlantic from October 5th, 2020. in Google Scholar

Huntington's, Samuel P. 1981: American Politics: The Promises of Disharmony. Belknap Press.Search in Google Scholar

Pew Research 2019: Trust and Distrust in America. July 22, 2019: in Google Scholar

Rodden, Jonathan A. 2019: Why Cities Lose. Basic Books.Search in Google Scholar

Russon Gilman, Hollie 2016: Engaging Citizens: Participatory Budgeting and the Inclusive Governance Movement within the United States. Ash Center, Harvard University: in Google Scholar

Villazor, Rose Cuison/Pratheepan, Gulasekaram2019: Sanctuary Networks. In: Minnesota Law Review, Vol. 103, 1209–1283 ff .: in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2021-03-12
Published in Print: 2021-03-26

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